Saturday, January 24, 2009

Wisconsin Courts (Again) Rule for Business

Wisconsin courts have again sided with business and have taken a blow at fair tax collection and a fair tax burden.

Marie Rohde of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported, with stunning lack of breadth and diveristy of opinion, on a Milwaukee property assessment ordinance that was ruled unconstitutional.

The article had the old worn out tone of "government can't do anything right or efficiently" running through it. And, to prove such, they spoke with business and industry lobbyists directly affected. Hardly an objective analysis. Insinuating that the City of Milwaukee pushed for an ordinance that would, "...deprive citizens of equal protection of the law." Big bad nefarious government is at it again, trying to take away your money and rights.

The basic story of the ordinance is this: when a property owner decides to object to the valuation of his/her property, the first time they present/argue their case (in front of a Board of Review; a quasi-legal authority, a grade below a circuit court) they must make the full effort to totally explain their position and introduce all evidence to substantiate their opinion.

Milwaukee Circuit Court Judge Jean DiMotto's ruling statement, "The law created favored and disfavored classes by allowing municipalities to enact ordinances that limit taxpayers' rights to the court," is wildly misguided and disingenuous. First, the law applies the same to all in a municipality. There are different laws, exemptions, tax rates, among other variances, between municipalities and states all over the country. Let's use the tax rate for an example: if a company feels the taxes are onerous, they will relocate their business. Would we instead say that an increased tax rate is unconstitutional because it would put more of a burden on the company than if they were located in Town X? Of course not. And, secondly, it doesn't limit rights, it sets the boundaries by which assessment disputes can be solved in an efficient and timely manner.

If a property owner feels an assessment is wrong, by objecting they are forcing the assessor to make a full case to support their opinion of value...why shouldn't the taxpayer have to do the same? No Board of Review case is scheduled before all the evidence is on the table and the assessor and property owner have gone back and forth exchanging information. The ordinance was an attempt to make business think equitably, with forethought, and pertinently. As property owners divulge more income and expense information, assessors correct errors and make any necessary adjustments to valuation. In this process, oftentimes going before a Board of Review will be unnecessary.

Basically, private enterprises want to give away as little actual information as possible, whilst getting complete information from the City supporting their case. The private actors then try to use this information to mold, mask, and artificially conceal their liabilities. Step-by-step through the court system (the Board of Review, the Circuit Court, the Court of Appeals) their objective is to continually raise doubt and muddle the discussion regarding the evidence presented by the City, whilst being able to introduce (new) doctored evidence to support their valuation. It's kind of like having the ability to change the rules as the game is being played. The ordinance was an attempt to end such.

But, if the case must be heard before the Board of Review, the assessor comes fully prepared with his/her report supporting the valuation. Why can't the taxpayer do the same? Time isn't an issue (within reason). Cases can be postponed, allowing plenty of time for a taxpayer to prepare. (Objections are filed in May. Cases are usually, at the earliest, heard in September. Four to five months of preparatory time is not enough?) But one must also feel that if someone objects, before doing so this person would have some evidence, comparable sales, or some other information which leads them to believe the assessment is wrong. After all, as chapter seventy of the Wisconsin State Statutes make clear, the burden of proof is on the taxpayer not the assessor. The Manual also makes clear the heirarchy for valuing property. Nebulous claims about "the market" and weak comparisons to the neighbor's recently sold (although completely different style home) dwelling will not do.

Oftentimes objections are filed just for the sake of objecting. It's part of some business accounting strategies. And this is an extreme waste of time and resources for all concerned.

Are you objecting because you studiously follow market trends and because you've crunched the numbers? Or, are you objecting just to drag it out in the hopes of some type of settlement, some type of break? Too often the latter is the case.

It's also laughable that this ruling is portrayed as being about fairness and protecting equal rights for taxpayers. This is about corporate and business interests. They want every legal advantage they can get in the tax code so they can pay less. Considering corporate taxation has been dwindling over the last thirty years (corporate taxes used to represent 25-30 percent of state income, now it's down to 5-10 percent) and the tax burden is being pushed more and more onto homeowners, this ruling adds insult to injury for residential homeowners.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Day The Laughter Died

We'll all be glad we no longer have to tolerate the policies, plunders, and lies...but we'll surely miss the antics.